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Frederick Goulburn (1788–1837)

by Vivienne Parsons

This article was published:

Frederick Goulburn (1788-1837), military officer and colonial secretary, was the third son of Munbee Goulburn of Portland Place, London, and his wife Susannah, daughter of Viscount Chetwynd, and a younger brother of Henry Goulburn, under-secretary for the colonies in 1812-21. On 25 May 1805 Frederick joined the army as a cornet in the 23rd Dragoons. He was promoted lieutenant on 11 September 1806 and captain on 12 July 1810. In June 1813 he transferred to the 13th Dragoons, fought in the Peninsular war and later at Waterloo. In February 1816 he was transferred to the 104th Regiment, promoted major and placed on half-pay.

On 30 June 1820 Goulburn was appointed secretary and registrar of the records of New South Wales, no doubt through his brother's patronage. William Charles Wentworth looked forward with pleasure to the influence the secretary would have in forwarding colonial affairs in London. Goulburn reached Sydney in the Hebe in December 1820 and took over from John Campbell on 1 February 1821. He was the first official colonial secretary of New South Wales. His predecessors were merely private secretaries to the governor, but Goulburn at first acted in both capacities.

His first year of office under Governor Macquarie was uneventful, but after Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane's arrival and the introduction of new arrangements for land grants, convicts, the commissariat and the law courts, Goulburn became implicated in the unpopularity which surrounded these changes. The colonists tended to identify Goulburn rather than Brisbane with them, probably because the latter took advantage of Goulburn's conversance with the local administration and allowed him considerable independence, and also because Brisbane resided largely at Parramatta and the colonists in Sydney had access only to Goulburn. Relations between the two seem at first to have been cordial. They toured the country together. Both participated in the newly founded Philosophical Society of Australasia. Both contributed meteorological tables to Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales by Various Hands (1825), edited by Barron Field.

In April 1823 Brisbane reported that he had had to enlarge the duties of the colonial secretary. The freedom he gave to Goulburn contrasted sharply with Macquarie's strict control of the reins of government, and gradually disagreements over the extent of Goulburn's duties and the interpretation of his commission came to the surface. In a dispute with Judge-Advocate (Sir) John Wylde over the custody of the records of the Criminal Court, Earl Bathurst overruled Goulburn. The secretary was certainly officious and he alienated many leading settlers by his manner and the scrupulousness with which he discharged his duties. His friendship with Henry Grattan Douglass, who clashed bitterly with the magistrates at Parramatta, fostered this unpopularity, and increased the enmity of the Macarthurs towards him. In August 1823 John Macarthur told his son John that Goulburn was a worthy successor to Governor William Bligh in despotic behaviour. He had accused Goulburn of misconduct in his role as registrar of the Court of Appeals, for accepting William Campbell's appeal against the verdict in Campbell v. Macarthur, after the proper time. In due course the Privy Council rejected the appeal, and meanwhile Goulburn was insulted by Macarthur's allegations.

A more important clash between them occurred over Macarthur's additional grant of 5000 acres (2024 ha) in the Cowpastures, which Bathurst ordered for him in July 1822. Brisbane promised Macarthur the whole of this land at Cawdor to consolidate his estates with the new grant, and to exchange two earlier grants to his sons for the better land at Cawdor; but he found himself in an embarrassing position when he learned that part of this land had been reserved for church and school. Goulburn offered an alternative grant; Macarthur refused it but eventually agreed to hold the Cawdor land only on lease until orders arrived from England. Finally in March 1824, after much mutual recrimination over the delay, Goulburn informed Macarthur that he could have the reserved land provided he made any reparation for the sacrifice of the public weal the British government might deem proper. In May 1824 Brisbane wrote to Bathurst complaining bitterly of Goulburn's conduct in the affair. He also criticized Goulburn for delays in conducting other government business, for withholding communications and staying the execution of orders, describing Goulburn as thinking that 'He is Secretary of State for the Colony, and embracing His powers, without, I am fully aware, sharing in the smallest degree His responsibility'.

This dispatch brought to a climax the growing rift between Brisbane and Goulburn after the secretary had claimed that all orders to the civil departments of the colony should pass through his office and had suggested that, since the governor thought it proper to issue orders directly to the surveyor-general, that officer's department should be placed solely under the direction of the governor's aide-de-camp, a change which would incidentally reduce the work in the colonial secretary's office. Brisbane took offence and reprimanded Goulburn, who then declared that he would retire into the strictest limits of the duties of his commission. Brisbane interpreted this to mean that Goulburn would not continue to act as private secretary and appointed Major John Ovens to the post. The strain of this division in the government was considerable and further quarrels arose over the delineation of the private secretary's powers, but most of the colony's business still went through the colonial secretary. In August 1824 Goulburn was appointed a member of the first Legislative Council, but in March 1825 he again came under fire when Brisbane told Bathurst that Goulburn was retarding the whole business of the colony by refusing to co-operate cordially in any measure not originating with himself. However, dispatches recalling both men had been sent from London in December 1824.

During his tenure of office Goulburn strongly supported the local charities, was elected president of the Benevolent Society and the Bible Society, was a friend of the Wesleyan missionaries, and was described as a 'Friend of Australia' for his work on behalf of the native-born youths. Some colonists solicited his help for the extension of their civil rights on his return to England, and the Sydney Gazette, 4 February 1826, declared that his political opinions were in line with those of the colonists and praised his liberality towards the press. Writing to Commander Phillip Parker King on 20 November 1822, Charles Macarthur depicted Goulburn as a misanthrope, confined to his books, with little knowledge of the outside world, bigoted in theories that were inapplicable to the colony, and labouring under great nervous instability. But in 1825 Chief Justice (Sir) Francis Forbes praised his caution, independence and scrupulousness, and the Sydney Gazette not only praised his self-sacrifice for the public weal but upheld his administration for its impartiality towards emancipists and free colonists alike, against attacks from the Macarthurs and others.

Goulburn sailed in the Triton in February 1826 and joined his family in Ireland. For a short time he acted as an under-secretary in Dublin while his brother was chief secretary there. In 1829 he refused a colonial governorship and retired into private life. In January 1837 he was gazetted lieutenant-colonel. He died at Southgate on 10 February.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10-14, 16-19
  • Gentleman's Magazine, July 1837
  • Philosophical Society of Australasia, Minutes, 1821-22, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 55, 1921, pp lxvii-cii
  • Sydney Gazette, 2 June 1825, 12 Jan, 9 Sept 1826, 23 Jan, 2 May 1827, 9 Jan 1828
  • manuscript catalogue under Frederick Goulburn (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Goulburn, Frederick (1788–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




10 February, 1837 (aged ~ 49)
Southgate, London, England

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